Quebec and Canada must recognize aboriginal rights, including the right to self-determination, says the Assembly of First Nations

When we began looking at the issue of separation and options of sovereignty for the First Nations of Quebec, we called a number of people.

Ghislain Picard, vice-chief of the Assembly of First Nations, felt the issue has to be examined by each individual First Nation. A solution for the Mohawks would not necessarily be the same one for the Cree.

So we called Arnold Goodleaf, who is the external relations director of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, and asked him if the Mohawks have a policy on Quebec separation. “They can separate with what they came with,” he replied. He said that was his sarcastic position.

But for a more formal policy, Goodleaf referred us to the resolutions passed by the AFN at their assemblies. Goodleaf also added that Quebec doesn’t have all the elements for nation status in terms of recognition from the international community. “There is contested land,” he said.

The AFN submission to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs was a little more tactful. “Present issues of contention between First Nations in Quebec are often due to an unwillingness within the province to recognize the historical and legal foundation of our rights. Finally the aspirations of First Nations must be looked at in the light of the possibility of an accession to the sovereignty of Quebec.”

Another AFN resolution on Quebec sovereignty was passed by the chiefs in Calgary in July of 1993. The chiefs said Quebec separatism has “negatively affected relations between the First Nations and the province of Quebec.” But they didn’t spare Ottawa from their criticism, going on to say that the “federal government has not undertaken its proper responsibilities to the First Nations of Quebec.”

The AFN’s resolution also contains the following recommendations:

• The government of Quebec must acknowledge that it cannot unilaterally maintain or suspend or in any way modify the status of treaties, including treaties to which it is a party.

• The fiduciary duty of the federal government has its roots in the aboriginal title of the First Nations of Canada. These fiduciary obligations are owed principally although not exclusively by the federal government. As a consequence, the government of Canada must protect the interest of the First Nations of Quebec, one way of doing so would be the unanimous entrenchment of the inherent right to self-government of First Nations in the constitution.

• The federal government must give the First Nations of Quebec full assurances that as part of its fiduciary duty, it will ensure that the First Nations of Quebec are given the opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination regardless of Quebec’s political, legal and constitutional status.

• The government of Quebec must acknowledge the existence of an ongoing treaty process and commit itself to this process for the future. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement is a contemporary example of an ongoing treaty relationship between First Nations and the Crown. The treaty process is a preferred model for the relationship between the Crown and First Nations.

• The government of Quebec must review its position on the existence of aboriginal rights and publicly acknowledge that such rights exist everywhere in the province. The aboriginal rights, including title and jurisdiction, of First Nations of Quebec do not depend upon recognition by the province for their existence. These rights are original rights, now constitutionally protected, which are held by First Nations. Nevertheless, a positive and harmonious relationship between the government of Quebec and First Nations in the province can’t be achieved unless the government of Quebec acknowledges the existence of aboriginal rights. This acknowledgement must be confirmed in both the political sphere and in arguments presented by the government of Quebec in the courts.

• The province must acknowledge the legal and historical foundation of First Nations rights in the province.